Reality is broken, and video gaming may well provide a way for fixing it, according to Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. The subtitle actually sums up the argument for the book. McGonigal argues that playing video games can help people find their core strengths. Essentially she believes that one can use video gaming as positive psychology therapy to learn how to become more optimistic, proactive, engaged, and creative in solving real-world problems. Not surprisingly the heroes in her book are the video game designers. She believes they can inspire people to give their lives more meaning and lead them to believe they are participating in epic actions, epic lives. She also suggests that people are likely to be more optimistic if they create alternate reality games in real life based on their favorite superhero mythology.
However, it is the subject of the main title, this so-called“brokenness” of reality that provides a real clue to the mythology of our time. Reality (that is, real life) is disappointing, and in a series of bold statements, McGonigal tells us just how reality is failing us and why games are better. Here’s a sample:
“Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with the voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.” Behind this statement is the sad and abiding idea that our real lives are boring, our real work an involuntary burden of unwanted tasks done at someone else’s bidding. “We are wasting our lives,” McGonigal explains.
“Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work.” Reality it seems is unstructured and offers few if any opportunities for satisfying work. Again, the work of our everyday lives is inherently tedious and the goals often ill-defined and hard to figure out.
One last sample:
“Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build strong social bonds and lead to more active social networks.” Real life is isolating, the author says. She cites the demise of extended communities in our everyday lives and refers to Robert Putnam’s landmark work Bowling Alone (2000) about the collapse of organizations and civic participation in the latter part of the twentieth century.
McGonigal argues that video gaming and alternate reality games can be powerful paths to help boost happiness, improve problem-solving and perseverance, and even provide sparks of a sense of community, all of which can
be applied to real-world experiences. To be sure, games of all sorts can be fun and give players a change of pace and respite from the responsibilities of life. But McGonigal goes way beyond the fun part. She is right in saying that we need to take games more seriously, that they are not just an evil force in society offering opportunities for people to waste their time or play incessantly and additively. But it is questionable whether she is also right in claiming that
video games are truly transformational and provide positive experiences that can influence the way people act and think in their real lives away from the video game screen. Her evidence is anecdotal and largely unconvincing.
In the end, it is McGonigal’s perspective is truly askew. Reality isn’t broken. It’s the relationship between people’s inner lives and their external reality that is out of whack. Life is complex, messy, full of demands, disappointments, inconveniences, and responsibilities. Virtual worlds and gmes, on the other hand, offer more structure, clearer goals, and hence new ways to feel successful and to communicate. But this does not by any means lead to authentic living. In the mid-1980s, the renowned mythology expert Joseph Campbell observed that many people were leading inauthentic lives. He said that they weren’t connected to their own inner spirit. Nor did they have a sense of the fundamental mystery of life in general. Without a sense of who they really were and their place in the universe, it was not possible to be genuinely engaged with others. And all this basis for leading an authentic life, Campbell
wrote repeatedly, is what a living myth can provide.
Reality may seem broken for video gamers because the life on the screen is so vivid, so complete in its opportunity for vicarious heroism. It is the land of superheros and super tasks, mythological in the sense that characters and events are larger than life. But these things are not representative of a living mythology, which would inspire inward illumination and outer wonder through its symbols and narratives about modern life. “Myths inspire the realization of the possibility of your perfection, the fullness of your strength, and the bringing of solar light into the world. Slaying monsters [and here Joseph Campbell meant slaying the monsters within the individual] is slaying the dark things.” Campbell told Bill Moyers. “Myths grab you somewhere down inside.” Video games may excite, may amuse, may well elevate one’s mood, but they do not hit you down deep within your spirit. They do not change your life as Campbell defined it when he spoke of living myths.